Book review: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “A Princess of Mars”

I have to admit that I knew nothing about Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Barsoom” books until I saw the first trailer for Disney’s “John Carter”.

Since I am an incredibly shallow person who bases my book purchasing decisions on the abs of the guy on the cover, I immediately sought out a copy of “A Princess of Mars” purely on the strength of a shirtless Taylor Kitsch.

Of course, that buying strategy hasn’t always worked out for me in the past. There’s the sad state of the “Fallen” books by Thomas Sniegoski that I bought a couple of years ago — they are still tragically unread.

It was a good thing this one had a movie coming out, so I had a lot of motivation to finish it. But will this be another book whose purchase I will rue? Or will Taylor Kitsch’s abs prove to be an accurate indicator of literary quality?

“A Princess of Mars” tells the story of John Carter, a perfect Southern gentleman who, upon the moment of his death, leaves to his nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs not just his estate, but a fantastic tome recounting the adventures he experienced on the planet Mars.

Inexplicably transported to Mars while escaping from some Apache Indians, John Carter finds himself embroiled in the brutal lives of the different inhabitants of Mars — or Barsoom, as the Martians call it. He is taken prisoner by green Martians, and in the course of his captivity meets the beguiling Martian princess, Dejah Thoris. And because of his increased speed and strength — thanks to Mars’ lower gravity — he ends up figuring in epic battles that change the political landscape of Barsoom.

When “A Princess of Mars” was first published in 1912, it was in the form of a magazine serial, and it definitely showed when I was reading the book over the past week. Each chapter kept on introducing these new concepts and ideas — to keep magazine readers interested, of course — and always ended on a cliffhanger. I can just imagine how readers would eagerly wait for the next installment.

Reading it in book form doesn’t lessen that anticipation or excitement. It’s easy to get lost in all the new things that Burroughs throws at you — nudity! telepathy! spaceships! — and you kind of go from chapter to chapter just taking it all in. It’s basically the outline of any good action adventure film — great set pieces interspersed with moments of connecting exposition and introspection.

There’s also the fact that the images that were in my head while I was reading the book essentially all came from what I have seen from the trailers for “John Carter”. So when Burroughs starts to describe a nude John Carter crawling about on his hands and knees on a Martian desert, the image in my head was a naked Taylor Kitsch crawling about on his hands and knees on a Martian desert. You guys have no idea how much that enhances the reading experience.

If the book had any problem, it’s the fact that parts of it have become incredibly dated. While some of it is charming — I found it amusing that there were only five continents at the time this book was published — a whole lot of it sounds a lot like racism and white man’s privilege. Perhaps it doesn’t sound so offensive when you’re reading this as a young kid — it’ll probably fly past your head — but reading it as an adult certainly felt very uncomfortable. That was probably the biggest thing that held me back from enjoying this book to the fullest.

Having said that, it was still an enjoyable read all in all, and I can clearly see why a lot of other science fiction authors have named this series as an inspiration. There are 10 (!) more Barsoom books in the series, and I can’t wait to read each and every one of them.

Also, have some shirtless Taylor Kitsch!

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